The action heats up Sunday when the second round of the NCAA Tournament unfolds at venues across the country. Anything can happen and the landscape of the tournament may change as there will likely be upsets along the road to the College Cup (Final Four). Solid play on both sides of the ball for a full ninety minutes or more, the ability to adapt to different styles of play, and toughness under pressure are among critical success factors. The frontrunners at this point are listed below.
Maryland – The Terps entered the season with a ton of talent and experience. The 2016 season has established one more time that when Sasho Cirovski only has to plug gaps due to graduation and not early departures you can fear the Turtle.
Add in the fact that transfers sophomore forward Gordon Wild (16g, 5a) and junior midfielder Jake Rozhansky (3g, 8a) have been just what the doctor ordered to help plug the gaps that needed to be filled and you have a formidable team on both sides of the ball. No one is any better than Cirovski, who has taken the Terps to the College Cup seven times and won two national championships, at getting his team prepared this time of the year.
Several things have to fall into place for a Maryland team that is 18-0-2 to date to win it all this year (as well as for everyone else) but right now the only team that can halt the Terps looks to be the Terps.
Clemson – The Tigers advanced to the national championship game last year where they were topped by Stanford in a contest in which they didn’t play their best soccer of the year.
Clemson may not be as strong from top to bottom this year or have the marquee players they had last year but they have the talent and the focus not to mention the advantage of the experience they learned along to the road to the championship game last year to make another deep run in the Tourney. Diego Campos (6g, 3a) is the go-to guy on the offensive side of the ball and a solid team oriented defense has allowed a total of only fourteen goals against a very competitive slate of opponents.
The Tigers who are 12-3-5 overall have shown the ability to prevail in the close contests which bodes well for them in the survive and advance environment of the NCAA Tournament. It is noteworthy that Clemson’s resume includes impressive wins over Providence, Creighton, Wake Forest, Louisville, Virginia Tech, South Carolina, and Boston College and two ties with Syracuse. Their three losses to date are to North Carolina 1-0 and Charlotte 1-0 in regular season play and Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament.
The Tigers are a talented and balanced team that is very hungry to get back to the title match. Those factors combine to make them a very dangerous opponent.
North Carolina – Count the number nine seeded Tar Heels who are 11-3-3 overall among the teams with what it takes to make a deep run in the NCAA Tourney.
The Tar Heels have a very productive and balanced attack with several excellent finishers including junior forward Zach Wright (5g, 6a). UNC entered the season with big gaps to fill on the defensive side of the ball due to the graduation of backs Jonathan Campbell and Jordan McCrary who were four year starters.
What is often overlooked is the fact that the Tar Heels have been rock solid on the defensive side of the ball allowing a total of only eight goals to date while recording eleven shutouts. The Tar Heels are among the best in the country in team goals against average (0.45) and shutout percentage (0.65). The UNC defense is led by backs Colton Storm, Alex Comsia, and Walker Hume who missed the 2015 season due to injury while James Pyle anchors the defense in goal.
Defense rules this time of the year which is a big plus as well as a necessity for the Tar Heels when they tangle with an attack oriented FGCU team in their opening contest in the Tournament on Sunday.
Indiana – The Hoosiers entered the 2016 season with a rock solid backline led by backs Grant Lillard, Andrew Gutman, Billy McConnell and Derek Creviston and veteran goalkeeper Colin Webb that many consider to be among the best in the country.
The big question mark was whether or not a clutch go-to goal scorer would emerge. All-American midfielder Tanner Thompson who has netted a total of eight goals to date including four game-winners has proved to be the playmaker the Hoosiers needed on the offensive side of the ball.
The Hoosiers who are 11-1-7 overall have the ability to make a run to the College Cup. However, despite the success they have enjoyed this season, the fact that they have seven ties to date is evidence that this is a team with a small margin for error in the NCAA Tournament where a penalty kick shootout determines who advances when teams are tied at the end of regulation and overtime.
The number seven seeded IU will have to play their best soccer of the year in order to make a sustained run beginning with their opening round contest on Sunday against an Akron team that is much better than their record to date indicates.
Charlotte – The number ten seeded 49ers who are 12-3-2 overall belong on the short list of teams with the ingredients to make a run to the College Cup. They are among the most balanced teams in the country with a goals against average of 0,51 which is fourth best in the country and they are finding the back of the net an average of 2.06 times per contest. Few teams have a better work ethic than Charlotte which is a huge plus.
Midfielder Brandt Bronico (8g, 5a) has been at the heart of the 49er attack while a very tenacious defense led by goalkeeper Elliot Panicco and backs Luke Waechter, Matej Dekovic, Sean Bowman, and Callum Montgomery has recorded ten shutouts to date while allowing a total of only nine goals.
The 49ers have won the CUSA regular season title three of the five seasons that Kevin Langan has been the head coach but they were upended 2-1 by New Mexico in the semifinals of the CUSA Tourney this year.
Charlotte begins play in the NCAA Tourney on Sunday when they host a solid Virginia Tech team that they tied 0-0 on the road during regular season play. Virginia Tech is having a breakthrough season which means they are traveling in unchartered waters at this point but they are also playing with house money now which makes them dangerous.
The key to a sustained run by Charlotte is playing a full ninety minutes plus more if needed and taking it one game at a time. If they can do that they will be a very difficult side to beat.
Stanford – The defending national champions began the season with questions regarding how they would respond to the loss of several key players including All-Americans Jordan Morris and Brandon Vincent. They started slowly going 0-1-3 in their first four contests which caused them to lose standing on the national scene. The Cardinal received a wakeup call of sorts when they were upset by San Francisco on the road back on September 23 in a contest in which they came out flat and clearly didn’t play to their potential. Since that time Stanford has gelled as a team physically and mentally recording eight wins, sustaining one loss and tying one contest to improve to 11-3-4. This Cardinal team has the talent to win it all led by Foster Langsdorf (12g, 2a) and playmaker Corey Baird (3g, 6a) on the offense side of the ball and junior back Tomas Hilliard-Acre on the defensive side of the ball.
Stanford is playing as well as anyone in the country right now and as the number five seed they will have the advantage of advancing as far as at least the Elite Eight without leaving home.
Look for Stanford’s ability to finish the scoring opportunities that come their way and their effectiveness out of set pieces to be a critical success factor in regard to how far they advance.
Louisville – The Cardinals looked to be among the hottest teams in the country before sustaining losses down the home stretch to Indiana 2-1 at home, Wake Forest 2-1 on the road, and Clemson 1-0 at home. They got back on track by defeating Virginia in the ACC Tournament before being topped by Wake Forest 2-1 in overtime in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament. On the other hand the number four seeded Cardinals have impressive wins over the likes of Connecticut, Xavier, Notre Dame, Virginia and Syracuse.
This is a team that has explosive offensive firepower led by dynamic forward Mohamed Thiaw who has netted eleven goals including seven game-winners to date. Louisville has also been tenacious on the defensive side of the ball led by back Tim Kubel (3g, 9a) and graduate student netminder Stefan Cleveland. The Cardinals have held opponents to a total of only twelve goals while recording a 0.62 goals against average.
The number four seeded Louisville who are 12-5-2 overall will open the NCAA Tourney on Sunday against UCLA out of the Pac-12 Conference in what looks to be one of the more interesting second round games. Thiaw has been the go-to guy for Louisville but in order for the Cardinals to make a sustained run in the NCAA Tournament they will likely need others to provide balance to the attack.
Denver – You don’t go undefeated with a 17-0-3 record without being very competitive. The Pioneers play in the mid-major conference Summit League which means they have to perform well out of conference to gain credibility on the national scene.
Denver under the direction of Jamie Franks accomplished that with impressive non-conference wins over Saint Louis, Butler, New Mexico, Portland and a tie on the road with Creighton. Forwards Andre Shinyashikl (7g, 5a) and Blake Elder (7g, 2a) power a Pioneer attack that has produced at total of thirty-three goals. Denver has a rock solid defense anchored by backs Reagun Dunk and Korte Ford and goalkeeper Nick Gardner that has allowed a total of only ten goals to date.
Last year number thirteen seed Denver concluded their season earlier than expected when they were upset by SMU at home to exit the NCAA Tourney after one contest. This year the number six seeded Pioneers will hope to avoid a similar fate when they host an upstart UNLV side that advanced past San Diego State in the first round in a contest that was determined by a penalty kick shootout.
Denver is for real but the bottom line is that they need a run in the NCAA Tournament to validate the success that they have enjoyed during the regular season. If they play to their ability and continue to do the things well that they have done all season they should accomplish that.
Wake Forest – The number two seeded Demon Deacons won the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament and had another banner season under the direction of Bobby Muuss with a 15-2-3 overall record. No doubt about it, Wake Forest has what it takes to advance to the College Cup and they are highly motivated to do so after their season ended in the Elite Eight last year when they were topped at home in overtime 2-1 in a heartbreaker by eventual national champion Stanford.
The Demon Deacons are undefeated in their last nine contests which means they have a ton of momentum on their side. They have signature wins over Virginia, Louisville, South Carolina, Boston College, Notre Dame and Clemson. Wake Forest has a balanced attack led by midfielders Jacori Hayes (7g, 2a) and Ian Harkes (4g, 3a) as well as forward Jon Bokero (4g, 3a) and midfielder Ema Twumasi (4g, 2a). The Deacon defense has been tenacious all year having allowed a total of only ten goals.
The Demon Deacons will host a Coastal Carolina team on Sunday that advanced to the second round with a 2-1 win over a good Radford team. The key for Wake Forest may be to take it one contest at a time and not look past anyone.